Emotion is at the heart of the heart

It seems that anger really can kill you:  a furious heart can burst, and a sorrowful heart can break.

That’s the result of recent research published in the latest issue of The Journal of the American College of Cardiology.  According to the research, anger leads to irregular heart rhythms, which increase the chance of mortality, especially among those with already weak hearts.  The effect has been observed, according to the researchers, across whole populations put under stressors – like the loss of a World Cup match. 

That may be news, but it’s not a surprise to scholars and practitioners of complimentary medicine.

For decades Mind-Body Medicine has been following the way that both emotions generally, and in tandem with the heart specifically, really do impact health and mortality, according to Donald Moss, director of Saybrook’s program in Mind-Body medicine. 

In fact, as Moss wrote in a chapter of a forthcoming book on anger and heart disease, the idea goes back a lot farther than that. 

“This is not a new perspective,” says Moss.  “Aristotle believed that the heart was the center of the human body, the seat of the soul and the emotions, and a primary sense organ of the body. For example, he defined anger as a seething heat in the region of the heart.  The ‘cardiocentric’ theory was widespread in the ancient world, and included an assumption that the heart was the seat of mental processes including thinking and memory.”

Okay, clearly they got some of that wrong – but not as much as cardiology once thought.  Research has shown for some time that there is a clear two-way communication between the heart and the brain – and the effects can be big. 

According to a 1974 study, Moss says, “Type A behavior” including competitiveness, hostility, and constant multi-tasking, doubled the risk for heart disease.  In 1985, a study showed that angry doctors and lawyers are five times more likely to die of heart disease than their less-angry peers. 

A 1992 study, also cited in Moss’ forthcoming chapter, shows that the hearts of subjects asked to recall moments of anger were not pumping effectively, and – how’s this for poetic – love keeps the heart whole.  The results, quoted in Moss’ chapter, have to be read to be believed:

Without loving companionship, human beings are more vulnerable to cardiovascular and other illness.  Research supporting this conclusion comes from many directions.  An early Israeli study of 10,000 married men with heart disease found that one simple questionnaire item had a dramatic moderating effect, even in the presence of high cholesterol, EKG abnormalities, and high anxiety (Medalie & Gouldbourt, 1976).  Among those men who said Yes to the question, “Does your wife show you her love?” only 52 % developed angina.  Among the group who said No to the same question, 93 % developed angina!

But perhaps most stunningly, Moss says, recent research is showing that the hearts of lovers really do beat in tandem.

“New research is showing the hearts of some intimately connected persons synchronizing with one another, even when they are separated from one another without sensory connection in sealed laboratory settings,” Moss said.  “The implications of these discoveries have not yet been fully tested or explored, yet suggest a possible bridge with the poetic attribution of a more central role to the heart, especially in emotion and human bonding.”

Research is ongoing, but the bottom line may be that the poets had it right:  life really can be “heart felt.”
“Perhaps it is time,” Moss writes, “in this era of functional symptoms, life style based diseases, and chronic illnesses — that medical thought must turn once again, to consider not only the pipes and the pumps, but how the individual will live from the heart.” 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *